The relocation of residents away from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011 was not justified, according to a group of British academics who have been analyzing how countries respond to nuclear accidents.
The team—which is made up of experts from four universities—has developed a series of tests to examine the relocations after the Fukushima and the Chernobyl disasters in 1986.
After a three-year study, the academics recently concluded Japan “overreacted” when 160,000 people were relocated in Fukushima Prefecture.
More than 30,000 square kilometers of northern Japan were contaminated by radioactivity.
Philip Thomas, currently a professor of risk management at Bristol University who led the project whilst working at City University, told Kyodo News, “We judged that no one should have been relocated in Fukushima and it could be argued this was a kneejerk reaction. It did more harm than good. An awful lot of disruption has been caused. However, this is with hindsight and we are not blaming the authorities.”
The team used a wide range of economic and actuarial data, as well as information from the United Nations and the Japanese government.
In one test, called “judgment-value,” they calculated how many days of life expectancy were saved by relocating residents away from areas affected by radiation.
They then compared this to the actual costs of relocation and how much this expenditure would impact on the quality of people’s lives in the future.
From this information, they were able to work out the optimal or rational level of spending and make a judgment on the best measures to mitigate the effects of a nuclear accident.
Depending upon how close people were to the spread of radiation, the team found that between 21 days and just under one day of life was saved by the relocations in Fukushima.
But when this was compared to the vast amounts of money spent, the academics came to the conclusion that it was completely unjustified in all cases.
In some areas, they calculated that 150 times more money was being spent than was judged rational.
Thomas adds the tests do not take into account the physical and psychological effects of relocating which have been shown to have led to more than one thousand deaths amongst old people in Fukushima.
Other studies have also found that once people have been relocated for a certain period of time it can become increasingly difficult to persuade them to return.
Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear disaster and around 116,000 people were initially relocated away from the disaster zone.
Looking back on the incident, the team judged it was only worthwhile to relocate 31,000 people because they would have lost in excess of 8.7 months in life expectancy had they remained.
However, for the rest of the 116,000 people, it would have been a more rational decision to keep them where they were, given their average loss of life was put at three months.
Four years later, a further 220,000 people were relocated from areas close to Chernobyl. Researchers found this move was completely unjustified.
Thomas says the loss in life expectancy following a nuclear accident has to be put into context alongside other threats all people face.
For example, it has been claimed that the average Londoner will lose about four and a half months in life expectancy due to high pollution levels.
Thomas concludes governments should carry out a more careful assessment before mounting a relocation operation (moving away for at least one year). A temporary evacuation could be a good idea whilst authorities work out the risk from radiation.
In future, Thomas would like to see more real-time information made available to the public on radiation levels in order to avoid hysteria and bad planning.
On a plus note, the team found that other remedial measures—decontaminating homes, deep ploughing of soil and bans on the sales of certain food products—were far more effective.
Thomas has already discussed his findings with colleagues at the University of Tokyo and he is keen that his findings can help better quantify the risks from radioactive leaks.
The project was sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—Britain’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences—and was designed to give advice for nuclear planners both in Britain and India. The team consisted of experts from City University in London, Manchester University, the Open University and Warwick University.